Thursday, July 31, 2008

>Two poems

>A few groovy poems by Philip Whalen. Many of his poems are on the longer side; out of laziness (on my part), these are on the shorter side.

“Take, 25:3:59"

I’ve run so far in one circle I’m visible now
only from the chest upwards
Any poet who’s really any good
Dances a complicated maze on top of the ground
scarcely wearing out the grass

“Something Nice About Myself”

Lots of people who no longer love each other
Keep on loving me
& I

I keep myself rarely available.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

>Yehuda Amichai's "Summer Evening By The Window With Psalms," The New Yorker 7.28.08


“Summer Evening By The Window With Psalms"

Amichai, who died in 2000 at age 70, is a wonderful poet.  Like other well-known poets of the Middle East (Adonis, Saadi Youssef—who may be my favorite from the area—both Muslims), Amichai’s work is often riddled with cultural conflict manifested via personal battle, or vice versa.  The poems of Adonis (pronounced Ah-doo-niece), the exile, constantly shift, comfortable in their pleasure one moment and uncomfortable the very next, and they seek resolution of that flux and flummox.  The works of Youssef (another exile, though not known as the exile) are built with similar such shifts, though the imagery is more apt to remain concretely grounded in the present; Adonis is apt to turn mystical and start talking about stones and trees and seawater of archetypal essence, whereas Youssef is more likely to remain situational by using imagery from within relatively immediate—in time and space—observation: condoms, cars, bullets.  As such, his work is more confrontational, in a proximate sense, than Adonis’.  The uneasiness present in Amachai’s work falls someplace in between that of these other two poets.  He directly addresses conflict, be it personal or cultural (as though there is a difference), but his tone is so matter of fact that often neither the tragedy nor the comedy stands out as dominate, leaving the reader to figure out the proper sentiment.  Often he does this by following a relatively benign image, idea, or both with a relatively dangerous one.  To cut the discrepancy, the pace and tone of his language remains the same.

Consider the opening lines of “The Diameter of the Bomb” (Time, 1978):

The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimeters

and the diameter of its effective range about seven meters

with four dead and eleven wounded.

They read like a manual, like a very distanced news report whose attention to seemingly trivial details  underscores the fifteen victims of the explosion.  As the poem expands, so does the bomb’s diameter until its circle of victims has grown to include city buildings, a woman from “more than a hundred kilometers away,” and the man who misses her “at the distant shores of a country far across the sea.”  But, the deadpan delivery of the opening lines remains consistent, which makes the bomb’s burgeoning effects all the more strange, displacing, and dreadful, the full effects of which culminate in the poem’s cataclysmic last few lines:

And I won’t even mention the howl of orphans

that reaches up to the throne of god and

beyond, making

a circle with no end and no God.

And consider this same movement in Amachai’s “God Has Pity On Kindergarten Children” (Now and in Other Days, 1955):

God has pity on kindergarten children.

He has less pity on school children.

And on grownups he has no pity at all,

he leaves them alone,

and sometimes they must crawl on all fours

in the burning sand

to reach the first-aid station

covered with blood.

I respond to that with numerous ouches.  And what’s not to like about the syntactic inversion in line three to draw more attention to grownups and to the notion that he (God) has no pity at all and less attention to God himself, whose name/reference is capitalized (because of its strategic placement) in each of the first two lines but not in the third.  And what’s not to like about the last two lines whose enjambment causes covered with blood to refer not just to grownups but to the first-aid station as well, which could be either laden with blood for transfusions and such or could be splattered with it from who knows what kind of explosion.  Ouch, and ouch again.

Anyway, these shifts and this battle with God (or god) are prominent in the great host of Amichai’s work and as such are present in “Summer Evening By The Window With Psalms” (translated from Hebrew by Robert Alter), published posthumously.  The opening stanza, in which the speaker rather gently compares his soul to “curtains that want to pull free / of the open window and fly” is contrasted with a similarly-voiced simile in the second stanza: the soul (now transformed into a we, as though Amichai projects for all of us) is “like a murderer sentenced to death, / wounded when he was caught, / whose judges want him to heal before / he’s brought to the gallows.”  There’s been a sharp shift in outlook and judgment here: curtains at the whim of wind are quite different from a murderer prone to the whims of executioners.  In either case, something other than itself is the soul’s driving force, something outside the soul moves the soul, something other than the self.

This meditation continues in stanza three, running more deeply internal and psychological now than it did in the opening stanzas wherein the speaker was physically located (by title) by the window.  It questions how much experience with peace and tranquility is necessary to actually achieve peace and tranquility, how many beautiful nights by the window and with the transcendent presence of psalms are requisite to feel—to be—beautiful and transcendent, “how many valleys of the shadow of death do we need / to be a compassionate shade in the unrelenting sun.”  The lines ring of Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind,” and most definitely the speaker ponders the dilemma on an equally social scale.

Moments later, however, we’re back in the concrete moment, looking out the window at a flock of birds, or perhaps stars or people (the poem doesn’t literally say), that pass by as the “hundred and fifty / psalms” of the Old Testament.  And what an interesting experience of the psalms this must be!  To see them outside the body as opposed to bearing them inside the body, which, normally, must vocalize them into existence from their static position on the page.  Here they are dynamically off the page, in the air, and discrete from the speaker physically and psychically.

Then, Amichai’s terrific last stanza:

I say: the window is God

And the door is his prophet.

Peace, tranquility, grace—each must be lived rather than witnessed to bring round its full effect, to transform those who seek it into compassionate shades in the relenting sun.  To do this requires the prophet, that is to say people, not just god who is as much a barrier to salvation as he is the eye through which it may be observed.  Achieving personal peace is a social endeavor.

As such, it would seem Amichai’s speaker is no closer to god nor to resolving his dilemmas at the end of the poem than he was at the beginning.  The meditation is lovely, but unless the speaker gets off his duff and mingles with the psalms flying by or walking down the street, little is received beyond the grasp of theory.  And harmony—god—the poem suggests, isn’t received by theory but by practice.  

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

>Cool poem by Giosuè Carducci

>Carducci was Italy's first Nobel in Literature winner.  Here's the poem, written in 1863 about the train, as translated by Umberto Eco:

Hymn To Satan

A monster of awful beauty
Has been unchained,
It scours the land
And scours the seas:
Sparkling and fuming
Like a volcano,
It vanquishes the mountains
And devours the plains.

It leaps over chasms;
Then burrows deep
Into hidden caverns
Along paths unfathomed;
Only to re-emerge, invincible,
From shore to shore
Like a tornado
It howls out its cry,

Like a tornado
It belches forth its breath:
It is Satan, O peoples,
Great Satan is passing by.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

>Dorothea Tanning's "Never Mind"

>"Never Mind," The New Yorker 7.28.08

Though I enjoy Tanning’s paintings, I don’t love this poem (perhaps I'd find her others more interesting).  Still, it’s remarkable she continues her late-late in life writing endeavor.  She was born in 1910; her first book of poems, Table of Content, debuted in 2004.

Like so much poetry these days (including my own), “Never Mind” is a narcissistic, ego-centric poem, though the redundancy of narcissistic egocentrism is partially its point.  Despite the opening two lines (from which the title is drawn), the poem still expects us to keep reading, as though its speaker believes we’ll find the piece—we’ll find her—as interesting as she does: “Never mind the pins / And needles I am on.”  No problem, I say.  May I now continue to read the article on medical pot in which you’re poem is embedded?  What do I care about your pins and needles?

Two lines later Tanning writes the word “torture,” which I don’t normally associate with pins or needles, and a few odd images like “the toaster / Eating toast.”  The tone is self-indulgent paranoia, and the speaker just can’t seem to make sense of what appears to be a very normal, sense-making world.  And if that’s the poem’s gist, that the quotidian routine of the world just doesn’t make sense, then I think I’ve heard that one before.  This is not to condemn "Never Mind" for offering nothing new but to say it just isn’t catching my interest, at least not yet.

The second stanza projects the scene from a personal, domestic strangeness to one imposed on strangers, a man bicycling across a bridge and whom the speaker supposes will lose metaphorical life after losing literal limb (including his penis) and his “sad wife” whom the speaker wonders will have an affair with a “Computer wizard called in / … to deal with glitches.”  The joke here involves the wife: is she sad because her husband lost “his left leg”?  Or, is she upset he lost “his penis … / To fearlessness”?  In either case, the ensuing PC fixer-upper fills the role of the grubby-handed Adonis plumber, of the pheromone-laden mailman (suggested in hindsight by the appearance of a mailman in the first stanza), and the poem takes a sardonic little journey into further such pornographic conjectures.  The speaker not only has lost the proportions of her own life but the life of these innocents, too.  Silly speaker.

The last stanza does more of the same, though with better, more-telling imagery, and finally the poem goes somewhere other than irony and glibness—or it approaches them from a different path.  In the confusion of a flood that seems to have ravished the neighborhood, the speaker’s “sister grabbed her / Silver hand mirror” and “The dog yelped constantly, / Tipping our canoe.”  Even in times of crisis, it seems, we can think only of ourselves.  Rather than grabbing each other, or photographs of each other, or whatever might (should?) seem important, we—via the sister—reach for ourselves by saving our own ass and image.  Even the dog, that age old symbol of fidelity, is willing to sink the ship in order to see itself floating safely downriver.  “Silly dog,” Tanning writes.

And there you have it.  Whether in times of pseudo-crisis or actual life-encroaching devastation, the game is played in pretty much the same way: you don’t mind me, and I don’t mind you.  Each piece of flotsam for itself.  I don’t know if this means the poem indicts human nature or not, but it seems a woman approaching 100 may know what she’s talking about.  Funny though.  Society tells us to love thy neighbor and all that good stuff, that the noble savage in each of us is noble because it’s constantly looking out for the other noble savages of the tribe.  Maybe, however, that’s just a survival tactic, one of many opportunist’s ploys for looking out solely for oneself.

Monday, July 21, 2008

>Robert Bly's "Courting Forgetfulness," The New Yorker 7.21.08

>"Courting Forgetfulness"

Bly’s piece in this week’s The New Yorker could as easily be titled “Courting Memory” or something of the like, a poem about daydreaming and escape, about the pleasure—and perhaps necessity—of losing consciousness of the physical world for a greater awareness of the internal world and whatever has filled it. The idea of forgetfulness in the poem, then, is ironic. We usually regard the act of forgetting as evil, the apogees of which are debilitating diseases like Alzheimer’s. But according to this poem (and other Bly poems), forgetting one’s physical bearings allows one to journey places the body can’t go; thus, courting forgetfulness is a valued task.

The first stanza begins 

It’s hard to know what sort of rough music
Could send our forgetfulness back into the ground,
From which the gravediggers pulled it years ago.

The speaker—whose voice isn’t self-referential at this point (“our” is the only clue to a sense of “I” and “you”) and is somewhat omniscient in sound and sense—is contemplating an idea in the present.  However, we’re already out of the physical world, daydreaming, as no physical bearings are provided.  This is all good and fine, and the immediate mediation is easy enough to follow. The difficulty is the word “forgetfulness.”  The word is packed into the exact middle of the stanza where the eye centers on it.  Nevertheless, the eye must unpack it from the surrounding verbiage to see it clearly.  So, the positioning of "forgetfulness" both draws our attention and highlights the word as a conceptual problem.  If forgetfulness is returning to the grave, then we—the poem’s “our”—are remembering. At the very least we’re forced into introspection. At the same time, if forgetfulness actually is the act of introspection, meaning we acquire "forgetfulness" of our present, conscious state in the physical reality, then the moment it's reburied isn’t one of escape from but re-entrance to reality. Imagine you're daydreaming on a park bench when the sudden whir of wheels wakes you: a cyclist whizzes by, and we’ve been returned, so to speak, to our senses. It’s exactly this kind of “rough music” that snaps us to attention, that breaks up the daydream. Just as often it’s this same sensory input that sends us internally reeling. Smells and tastes particular effective nostalgia/daydream providers.  So which is it? Via forgetfulness, are we meditating on the world in lost time or observing it in real time?

The rest of the poem forwards the meditation as the speaker contemplates our waking versus sleeping experience, the waking not just a physical event but an awakening, and the sleeping not just shut-eye but an oblivion. The second stanza opens with a birth—“The first moment of the day we court forgetfulness.”—and the poem stays near this beginning until the fifth and penultimate stanza where age is evoked by the image of snow and the idea of a lifetime of things to remember and forget—“you’ll find / A forest going on for hundreds of miles.” The images in these sections are predominantly pastoral, per the usual Bly poem. Often they’re somewhat irrelevant in the real world; that is to say they would seem expendable, inconsequential to the meaningful makeup of daily experience, such as “The earth that sticks to the sides of plowshares,” but it’s exactly these irrelevancies the poem wants us to remember. After all, if “a century can / Go by in the space of a single heartbeat,” then there is much of the world to tally and consider, and even the best of memories will have a hard go of recalling—of being aware—of a fraction of it, much less all of it. So, pay attention!

Though the middle four stanzas are certainly of a piece, firmly planted in meditation, the last, like the first, takes place in a slightly different state of mind. Here, the voice does become referential. It becomes reflexive, opening with an apostrophe like one may see in a ghazal: “Robert, it’s to your credit that you remember / …” The speaker is now not the speaker you would expect (the poet in this case), but the speaker over there, split off from its usual position in time and space. It’s the speaker talking to himself, and again the poem’s duplicity is clear. The stanza continues: “… / So many lines of Rilke, but the purpose of forgetfulness / Is to remember the last time we left this world.” The word purpose, here, is key. Too often the act of forgetting is a passive one. It happens to us without volition, and little is gained, perhaps, as a result. We lose sense of ourselves internally and externally, entering and exiting worlds without control, without awareness. But, if the act is purposeful, if the daydream is a lived, conscious experience (akin to lucid dreaming?), then much can be reaped from it. So, yes, Robert. It’s a wonderful thing you can remember some Rilke poetry, but it’s not the physical text that matters most—it’s the other world to which it takes you, to which you actively journey.
In this respect, the poem ends with a nice sentiment about poetry in general (though I don’t believe this poem is any more about poetry than most poems, which is to say it is at least somewhat about poetry), albeit a damning one for some. You can’t just read a poem the way you can watch a television show. You can’t just sit on our your couch and expect it to happen to you. You have to get off your (mental) duff and engage it.

As for the poem’s craftsmanship, the stanzas are all tercets, and the lines are of similar length, anywhere from about ten syllables to about fifteen syllables, though they don’t adhere to a stress count or particular rhythm. Many have contextual integrity, though they also have interplay with the surrounding context. My favorite enjambment is between lines five and six: “a century can / Go by in the space of a single heartbeat.” The only particularly unnatural line break, it creates a nice pause that physically mirrors the idea of time moving both slowly and quickly simultaneously. The “n” in can helps create this effect. It takes time to pronounce “n,” which slows the poem…for the space of a single heartbeat. And, the paradox of forgetting/remembering presented in the first stanza is consistently wrought and developed throughout.

Robert Bly’s been around for a long time. By my count, he’s…82. Like much of his oeuvre, “Courting Forgetfulness” pushes us toward an internal universe, which, as happens, is littered with external things. The mind (and spirit?) is made of material objects, and part of living is the journey taken toward them as they exist and are synthesized in that (un)conscious realm. I’m curious what this all means to an elderly gentleman in his eighties.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

>Marcus Jackson: “Mary At The Tattoo Shop,” The New Yorker, 7/21/08

>"Mary At The Tattoo Shop"

It’s impossible not to read Jackson’s “Mary” without thinking about Elizabeth Bishop’s “In The Waiting Room.”  In Bishop’s piece, the speaker—a little girl—discovers a sense of self while waiting for a dentist to finish with her Aunt Consuelo.  She’s a precocious, introspective child; in the quiet of the waiting room, her mind runs wild, internalizing the riches of the external environment and eventually plundering the internal treasure of me-ness.

            In Jackson’s poem, the speaker is much more passive than this, stumbling on a sense of self rather than actively engaging it.  Other characters—the bold “she” and the “guy who ran the shop”—play active roles, while the speaker, presumably a “he,” is a passive participant along for peer support and to do whatever else is asked of him by the girl.  In the final moments of the poem, he raises “her hazel hair…[his] finger glistened in salve / as [he] reached for her swollen name.”  It’s a baptismal, a blessing, but only for Mary who had her name tattooed on her neck “in a black, Old English Script” in all caps (as written in the poem).  Our poor speaker…is he just now realizing she’s out of his league, that Mary, though also fourteen, is moving in circles whose orbits he has yet to penetrate?

            Perhaps that’s the speaker’s epiphany.  Perhaps that’s his eureka! in a poem that needs to have such a moment (it’s otherwise a bit prosaic and boring, though not necessarily poorly composed).  In contrast to Mary and to Bishop’s little girl, the speaker (possibly) arrives at selfhood by being a passive participant, a follower, to the poem’s action.  He rides the coattails of Mary’s rebellion—cigarettes and tattoos at fourteen, the brazed decision to tattoo one’s own name on her body—but isn’t a rebel himself.  Poor sap.  And, that’s the poem’s central paradox: the speaker’s acquired sense of identity is that he doesn’t have one, or anyway not much of one.

            As aforementioned, the prosody in “Mary At The Tattoo Shop” is prosaic with no real surprises in syntax or line breaks or rhythm, much of which is loosely trochaic and iambic depending on the line.  That having been said, the lines are self-assured and well-paced, and the consequent voice is appropriately taciturn: the speaker isn’t wont to take chances, and neither really are the lines of his poem.  The images are urban, precise, and familiar, and the detail is sufficient for the narrative with a few particularly telling moments.  The tattoo artist leans over the girl “for forty minutes / with a needled gun / that buzzed loud / as if trying to get free” is, for me, the most telling.  It’s a sexual thing: the girl’s fourteen, she’s exploring her body, she’s pricked by one dude while another dude voyeuristically witnesses the event he dreams he was part of.  If you want to push it, something with “Newport,” as in cigarettes, and the loaded name “Mary” could be done, too, though I’m not necessarily advocating it.

            Lastly, returning to Bishop, the influence, intentional or not, seems clear.  In addition to both poems being about identity, they have similar lineation (Bishop’s is a loose trimeter, a loose three-stress line, really), similar body exploitation (Bishop’s speaker peruses a National Geographic with photographs of native women/cultures who practiced cranial shaping via wooden plates and neck elongation via brass rings), and similar quick shifts to the outer—meaning outside the immediate scene—world (Jackson’s speaker notices the sun setting against the city skyline; Bishop’s returns to a cold, February night in Massachusetts).

            Jackson is a young, up-and-coming poet whose work, based on the few other of his poem’s I’ve read, is a welcomed contrast to much of the inexplicable, quasi-hyper-intellectual, hyper-lyrical jibber-jabber running around the poetry zoo these days.